For years, Aucklanders have moaned that the only easy scenic cycling trail was a serious journey away to Central Otago - or in France or Australia. But now the Nga Haerenga National Cycle Trail is gradually filling out, we've got plenty of flat, off-road trails to choose from, all within a couple of hours' drive of Auckland.
We can't wait til the Twin Coast Trail between the picturesque Hokianga Harbour and the Bay of Islands opens - but word has it that it's a year or more away. The teeny sampler open now (a 14km stretch between Okaihau and Kaikohe) is a tantalising glimpse of what this historic ride can offer. When the ribbon is cut, it will be top of our list for rides.
Meanwhile, many of these rides in the upper North Island are functioning well after a summer (or two, in some cases) of operation. These are an easy family day-tripper. But some deserve a couple of days' riding - and with plenty of budget accommodation, this is a great way to introduce the kids (and grandparents) to the freedom and joy of bike-riding holidays.
Taking in scenery you either zoom by in the car or never get to see is an added bonus.
Most trails are getting organised for bike hire, food and toilet stops and, when needed, sherpa buses to pick you up - with your bike - when your legs give out. Some veer from deeply remote wilderness to sleepy old-time villages with country opening hours (and, be warned, country lack-of-phone-reception).
Thankfully there are emerging products wrapped around the trails (the point, after all, of the job creation bit of Nga Haerenga): clutches of good coffee and eateries, bike repair and hire, buses and accommodation.
Te Awa River RideNgaruawahia to Karapiro, via Hamilton.
Grade 1, easiest
This will be a great river ride alongside spots most of us miss driving past in the thundering State Highway 1 traffic. Right now, you can enjoy rides in Hamilton city (start in town, or at Hamilton Gardens, which has enough variety to keep children amused). Cambridge's cycle lane runs from the southern edge of Cambridge to Lake Karapiro Domain, easy, off-road and pretty, so a great place to start riding with kids. The path is being extended this summer along the rowing course and within the next year, sections will link to the soon-to-be-completed Avantidrome (imagine, cycling to a cycle venue) and Leamington, along with the section around the Narrows between Hamilton and Cambridge. The complete ride will eventually travel 70km along the Waikato River from Ngaruawahia in the north, passing through Horotiu, Hamilton, Cambridge and Karapiro before extending to link with the Waikato River Trail at Horahora on the shores of Lake Karapiro. Construction of the Hamilton City to Horotiu Bridge leg starts this month, the section beyond that to Ngaruawahia hopefully in the next year.
The trail will combine farmland and regenerating native bush, thanks to the intensive planting programme now under way.
Hauraki Rail Trail
Grade 1, easiest
The Hauraki Rail Trail is a treasure - flat, entirely off-road, well-paved and signposted, with excellent help from the trail managers. This is a "spoke" trail (not circular) so start or stop at any of the hub towns of Thames, Paeroa, Waihi and Te Aroha or in the the splendid Karangahake Gorge. Thames is famous for its mining history, Te Aroha as a spa town (time the end of at least one day to soak in the mineral pools) Paeroa for its fizzy drink and antique shops, while Waihi is known for mining, history and as a gateway to Waihi Beach. You are never far from mountains of marvellous food - no matter how much you pedal, you're unlikely to work off the calories you're sure to consume.
The former railway lines mean you have elevated views of farms and scenery you'd never see from a car. A great ride for confident children and you can now use trailers and tag-alongs (earlier awkward cattle stops have been removed). Allow time to check out the mines in the gorge (take a torch). If you're weary, stow your bike on the Goldfields Steam Train and toot your way into Waihi or book the shuttle bus. Future plans include extending the track to Miranda, even south into Matamata.
Whether you want a fully guided tour, accomodation, bookings, bike hire, or sherpa-ing of luggage, the trail team will show you the way.
The ride across the Motu Dunes in Opotiki (top) and passing vineyards in the Gimblett Gravels in the Hawkes Bay.
Waikato River Trails
Grades 1-3, easy to intermediate
Opened in November 2011, the Waikato River trails give cyclists and walkers the chance to get up close and personal with New Zealand's longest river - the Waikato. The trail begins at Horahora Rd (near Karapiro) in the north and finishes 102km south at Atiamuri, home of the power station, 45km north of Taupo.
Beautifully made tracks vary from easy, flat and kid/nana friendly to hair-curling mountain-biking, with some spectacular swing bridges through native bush, farmland and geological wonders. Numerous neat places to stop, though bring supplies as coffee and civilisation exist only at the beginning and end of each section. Time your trip to catch a lift (with your bike), on the Otunui, New Zealand's oldest working paddleboat, as it chugs along Lake Maraetai towards Whakamaru Domain. waikatorivertrails.com
Rhubarb Cafe, 6 Arapuni Rd. Ph (07) 883 5722. Bryan from Rhubarb rents out bikes, provides guiding services, customised itineraries and makes a mean packed lunch.
Blue Tui Shuttles, ph (07) 872 2404
Te Ara Ahi, Thermal by Bike Rotorua
Grade 2 Easy
So new the paint is practically still drying, Te Ara Ahi links the heart of Roto-vegas with the country's best loved mountain bike park at Whakarewarewa, on easy, mostly flat, off-road paths. This will change how you think of this town, as you wend through the moonscapes behind Polynesian Spa, Sulphur Bay, beside streams and all the way to Whakarewarewa Maori Village and the newly renovated Te Puia cultural centre. The brilliant bit is the off road trail carved beside the Hemo gorge - no need to brave the traffic or the hills. the Mountain Bike Park has easy, kid-friendly trails and fine coffee before you loop back to town. Hard core mountain-bikers, or confident riders not afraid ofon-road sections, can carry on to take in the Waimangu volcanic valley via the heart stopping Rainbow Mountain (with a stop at picturesque - and free- hot/cold pools at Kerosene Creek), through more old fashioned heartland of Waiotapu and into the Waikiti. These bits will eventually be off-road, but still the 37km finished so far is worth a long weekend.
Taumarunui Timber Trails
Grade 2, easy
One of the newest trails of the National Cycleway, the Timber Trail follows historic tramways and old logging tracks south of Te Kuiti as well as including newly created trails. It's ideal for confident kids and more experienced mountain bikers, but is not as easy or flat as the others in our list. The scenery is outstanding, the birdlife abundant and, all along the way, fascinating information boards explain the area's history.
The trail features the Maramataha swing bridge, (the North Island's longest) and passes the Ongarue Spiral, restored to its former glory as part of the trail's development. Everything about this trail has been done to perfection. Ideally this is a two-day ride, spanning 77km, starting at the Piropiro DoC campground (Benneydale is the nearest village), ending at Bennett Rd, south of Ongarue Village, 15 minutes north of Taumarunui.
timbertrail.net.nz also has shuttle and accommodation packages
Taumarunui Canoe Hire: taumarunuicanoehire.co.nz
TCH rent out excellent Marin bikes, and can provide sherpa services.
Motu Trails, Opotiki
Grade 1 to 3 (easiest to intermediate/technical)
There are four trail options: do the whole 91km loop or just pick off one of the three sections.
The Dunes Trail is an easy 19km return trail along, naturally, the stunning dunes. Start at the Memorial Park reserve, and pedal on easy, smooth paths, hugging the dunes to the bottom of Motu Rd. This is a trail where you are not racing the clock - too much to see of the spectacular Pacific Ocean, White Island and across to the rugged east coast. Bring your own picnic (there is some food towards the end of the trail). If you have mountain bikers in your group, see Donna McIntyre's trip through the rugged Pakihi track (page 5).
Hawkes Bay Trails
Grade 2 to 3 (easy to intermediate)
Hawkes Bay prides itself on being one of the first and best cycling areas in the country - that's cycling for everyday commuters and families getting about, not just tourists. It's flat, there are loads of council-built off-road paths and traffic density is low. Pair that with beautiful scenery, vineyards and food stalls, polished and professional cycle hire companies and who needs to go to France? Opened this summer was the winery trail, which skips around the Gimblett Gravels (bike companies kindly pick up your wine purchases - or you, if you're no longer fit to ride). Kids, too, will like pedalling beside the Ngaruroro River, through Oak Ave, all off-road. Around Napier, you can cycle the Water Ride from Ahuriri and West Shore all the way along the coast, through Clive to Clifton (Clearwater Estate, or Cape Kidnappers if you're feeling posh). See hawkesbaynz.com (look for Hawkes Bay Trails).
Or for a fun family introduction to riding in the region, join The Big Easy at Easter weekend, a very un-lycra cycling event around the region's best attractions. Register your interest at RideYourBike@TheBigEasy.co.nz.
• Addtional reporting Donna McIntyre and Catherine SmithBy Elisabeth Easther Email Elisabeth